Letter in Response to Paul Golberger’s Vanity Fair Article on the Eisenhower Memorial Controversy

[Published in the October 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.]

To the Editor:

In his article on the growing opposition to the design for the National Memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Paul Goldberger doubted whether the Eisenhower family’s denunciation of Frank Gehry’s deconstructionist plan should matter at all.

In 1964 the Roosevelt family condemned the modernist design for the F.D.R. Memorial, which was the work of one of the country’s leading architecture firms. Speaking for his family, the president’s eldest son said about the proposed monument, “We don’t like it, and I’m sure father wouldn’t either.” That was good enough to kill it; the architects had the good grace to withdraw their plan.

Likewise, there is no doubt that Eisenhower, who was famous for his modesty, would have hated Gehry’s grandiose design. Disdaining modern art and architecture, which he did not believe represented the taste of the American people, the president said in 1962, “We see our very art forms so changed that we seem to have forgotten the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. . . . What has happened to our concept of beauty and decency and morality?”

Goldberger also makes a telling omission. Despite the thousands of words in his article, he does not defend Gehry’s design. Instead, he merely defends the architect. Whether or not Gehry should gracefully heed the Eisenhower family’s fierce opposition, not to mention the president’s own taste in art, he should listen to what his friends are saying — or pointedly are not.

Justin Shubow
President and chairman
The National Civic Art Society
Washington, D.C.

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Floundering Farmers

Founding Farmers is one of the most popular, and cleverly named, restaurants in Washington, D.C. According to its self-description, “it is a celebration of the land and the American family farmer; it is a nod to the founding fathers of our country, many of whom owned and farmed land that surrounds Washington, D.C.; and it is a place where true, sustainably farmed, grown and harvested American foods are brought to our guests.” Farm-to-table, slow food — it sounds great!

And when I think of sustainability, family farms, and tradition I think of . . . a metal and glass skyscraper.

Hmm. Sterile and uninviting. That doesn’t tell us much about the restaurant.  Let’s try the entrance. Continue reading

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Koolhass in Praise of Ugliness and Evil

The Cheerful Rem Koolhaas

From the August 16, 2006 Spiegel interview of Dutch architect Rem Koolhass:

SPIEGEL: In methodical Germany, a major debate is currently underway in Berlin over whether to rebuild or start from scratch. Is tearing down the Palace of the Republic the right thing to do, and should the reconstructed Hohenzollern palace (which East German authorities demolished in 1950) really be erected in its place?

Koolhaas: I think tearing down the palace is a crime, simply because it was a special, recognizable artifact of a past political system. In my view, Berlin is nothing but a collection of overlapping regimes. It’s unhealthy in a historical sense to eradicate this characteristic building.

SPIEGEL: But the palace was ugly.

Koolhaas: Ugliness also has a right to exist. Our society can no longer tolerate ugliness. You see that in cars, sofas and women. But seriously, if something like this building is ugly but nevertheless important, we must preserve it.

SPIEGEL: And if it had been beautiful and important? Shouldn’t architects be the prophets of beauty?

Koolhaas: Beauty isn’t what I’m primarily interested in. I think appropriateness is more important.

SPIEGEL: What do you think is the world’s most beautiful building?

Koolhaas: Very conventionally, the Pantheon in Rome, for example. Isn’t it remarkable? Talk about beauty and you get boring answers, but talk about ugliness and things get interesting.

SPIEGEL: What are the greatest architectural sins?

Koolhaas: Evil has many faces. It can also arise both from inability or from malicious intentions.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that evil and ugliness are the same thing?

Koolhaas: Not necessarily. Evil can also be beautiful. The Coliseum in Rome, for example, a wonderful structure with an awful past. Just think about the bloody gladiator fights there.

In the same interview Koolhass says that “porn” is “the last form of humanism.”

Rem Koolhaas’ ugly, evil CCTV building in Beijing
Posted in architecture, beauty, commonplace book, evil, Rem Koolhass, ugliness | Leave a comment

Parasitic Modernism

Steven Semes, author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation (a voice of reason in the confused world of historic preservation), has called attention to the new plague of parasitic architecture:

It seems that the currently fashionable architects are competing to plant their “contemporary stamp” on the historic face of the Eternal City. It all began with the completion in 2005 of Richard Meier’s Museum of the Ara Pacis, which seems to have opened the way for new Modernist architecture in the city. Upon its completion, the Meier building prompted protests even from the mayor of Rome, and now its entry plaza is to undergo a makeover in answer to some of the criticisms that met its debut, most notably the wall that blocks the view of two Neo-classical churches from the riverside boulevard of the Lungotevere.

MAXXI Museum by Zaha Hadid. Photo by Steven Semes.

As disturbing as the counter-contextual imposition of Meier’s building is, there is something worse afoot in Rome: the gutting of historic buildings of more recent vintage and their incorporation into crudely cannibalistic new construction. Modernist architects are becoming perversely parasitic in this way: They insist on using historic structures as a “foil” to their unprecedented forms and high-tech materials. Aggressive “shards” and “blobs” are suddenly exploding from the bellies of older buildings like the creature in the movie “Alien” that burst out of the abdomen of an ill-fated earthling. Daniel Liebskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and War Museum in Dresden are the best known examples of this approach.

Turning to the example of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum in Rome, Semes comments:

Hadid uses the existing building simply as a shell, hollows it out, paints it white and makes it all but disappear, nearly overwhelmed by the onslaught of the new structure that seems to be attacking it like some colossal monster in a science-fiction film. But, unexpectedly, the old structure’s dignity of composition, satisfying proportions and human scale resist the architect’s act of appropriation. It stands its ground, still recognizable as architecture, refusing to be destroyed. This persistence must keep Hadid awake at night. Not allowed to demolish the buildings, she is powerless to rob them of their meaning, despite the considerable effort she gives to the task.


Daniel Libeskind’s War Museum in Dresden
Posted in Daniel Liebeskind, parasitic Modernism, Steven Semes, vandalism, Zaha Hadid | Leave a comment